No American president during the last half century has matched President Lyndon Baines Johnson's skillful use of power.
In the White House, Johnson's hold on Congress remained firm, as he masterfully pushed through the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the most significant civil rights legislation since Reconstruction. This law served as the cornerstone of Johnson's "Great Society" agenda that included voting rights, fair housing, health care, immigration, and education reforms. Courageous everyday people and civil rights leaders were instrumental in achieving this landmark law. Although it has suffered recent court losses, the Civil Rights Act remains a bold piece of legislation that celebrates its 50th anniversary today.
During the 50th anniversary remembrance of the landmark civil rights law that recently drew to the LBJ Presidential Library three former presidents -- Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush -- President Obama praised Johnson's political skills. He recounted advice Johnson received from an aide not to spend his time and power on lost causes. President Johnson replied, "What the hell's the presidency for if not to fight for causes you believe in?"
That is a very good question, and one worth considering as we wage today's battles for civil rights and justice.
Among the many issues that challenge our national values of "equality and justice for all," the attacks against low-income immigrants stand out for their persistence, ferocity, and hatred.
Immigrants who are legally residing in the U.S., working and paying taxes, nonetheless have to wait years before becoming eligible for some of the tax-funded programs that will help them achieve economic stability. Young immigrants who have qualified for the president's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program are barred from Obamacare.
Members of immigrant communities who are undocumented -- including the parents of U.S. born children and DACA recipients -- live in constant fear that they will be separated from their families. Even U.S. citizens of Asian, African, or Latin American descent have come to fear racial profiling at traffic stops or other encounters with law enforcement.
President Obama knows this. Immigrants' rights activists ranging from young immigrant leaders to advocates living and working on the border have sent a strong message that the status quo is unacceptable. The president has met with immigrant advocates and heard the painful stories from our communities. He has militarized the U.S.-Mexico border and broken the record for deportations in a failed attempt to appease Republicans and immigration restrictionists, averaging more than 1,000 deportations each day.
This past Monday, I had the privilege of meeting with President Obama, Vice President Biden, other senior officials, and other advocates. I was conscious of the fact that I was filling a seat at the table that represented the millions of low-income immigrants who will not have that opportunity. With Congress' failure to find a long-term legislative solution to our dysfunctional immigration system, President Obama shared that he has finally concluded that he must do what he can on his own to prevent further devastation to our country, economy, and immigrant communities.
The president has the power to provide badly needed repairs to our immigration system. He has the legal authority and the moral responsibility to end the suffering of aspiring Americans in the absence of congressional action. For example, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) can refrain from placing a construction worker with strong ties to the U.S. in deportation proceedings, suspend or even end the deportation of a mother, or postpone the deportation of a whistleblower who courageously speaks up against her employer's civil rights or labor violations, because it does not serve the public interest.
Where there is a will, there is a way, even in today's political world where change seems to be harder to come by, as the president acknowledged during his retrospective on LBJ's "genius" political work on civil rights.
"Those of us who have had the singular privilege to hold the office of the presidency know well that progress in this country can be hard and it can be slow, frustrating and sometimes you're stymied. The office humbles you. You're reminded daily that in this great democracy, you are but a relay swimmer in the currents of history, bound by decisions made by those who came before, reliant on the efforts of those who will follow to fully vindicate your vision," President Obama said.
"But the presidency also affords a unique opportunity to bend those currents by shaping our laws and by shaping our debates; by working within the confines of the world as it is, but also by reimagining the world as it should be," the president added.
Bend those currents, Mr. President. Immigrants and their families are counting on you to use your executive authority until Congress finds the wisdom to act in the best interest of our nation. Work with us not only to reimagine America as it should be, but use your power to make that vision a reality.